A Month Later, DADT Survey Participation Lags

On August 12th, the Navy Times, which has been closely covering the DADT survey sent out to 400,000 service members last month, reported that only a quarter of the troops returned the survey in advance of the August 15th deadline, leading Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to issue a statement pleading with troops, “If you have not yet responded, please participate. Your response will help us assess the impact of a change in the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ law”.  In light of the low response level for such a seemingly controversial and time-sensitive issue, it begs the question, why are troops not responding to a survey that could help smooth or derail the path towards DADT reform?

One factor is simple and straightforward: time. Simply, people are busy, and a long and relatively repetitive survey that requires them to think back to their past experiences with gay service members does not fit easily into a busy schedule.  It is quite easy, for someone who does not have strong feelings on this issue, to consciously choose to leave the “voting” up to others.

That leads to the other main reason that comes to my mind: passion.  Policy makers assumed that because they are required by their constituents to have a passionate view on DADT, that everyone has a passionate view on the issue.  The truth is that many Americans have no clear view on this issue, and service members are no different.  One can feel that being gay is wrong, but still be respectful enough of our founding principles to accept an unpleasant (to them) reality.

Much of the debate so far has revolved around the impact of gays on unit cohesion under high stress, enclosed environments or combat situations, where unit cohesion is of great importance. In those cases, much like the decision to add women to submarines, caution is warranted, so long as it does not serve to obstruct progress. It is understandable that service members in those settings might have a strong opinion on this issue.  But many service members don’t serve in those types of situations. They may be shore side administrative staff, vehicle maintenance crew, or, like myself, a public affairs specialist. These issues just don’t have the same affect on mission readiness for them, which I believe has contributed to the surprisingly low level of participation on a survey that has been impossible to avoid about during the last month.

I was not invited to complete the survey, though I read a copy of it in July, but I do feel very strongly that DADT needs to be reformed. The survey itself was an imperfect creation, clearly created by a committee. Yet, given the issue and the stakes, the survey did a very passable job of allowing the respondent to come to their own conclusions, and not be led along a certain ideological path.  The one serious concern I have is the line of questioning that asked respondents to share their opinions on how others in their unit felt about gays.  In court, this would be thrown out in a second, and with good reason.  If I was, say, a raging homophobe, it would be in my best interest to claim that my entire unit was disgusted by the presence of a gay service member.  Or I could state the opposite if I personally had no issues with gay soldiers.  The survey would have been best presented by focusing solely on the direct knowledge and beliefs of the respondent.

As a Navy reservist, I did submit comments through the voluntary website created for all service members and their families to share their thoughts., which has notably received 67,000 short responses.  While I echoed the most mainstream arguments about civil and human rights, I focused my comments on a point that has received little mention in the media coverage: what happens when a civilian joins or serves alongside a military where gays don’t “exist”.   As a reservist, I have a civilian life.  In that civilian life, I encounter gay men and women on a daily basis.  Growing up in urban coastal cities, I grew up around gay men and women, and saw friends come out as they discovered their true proclivities.  To me, while it differed from my own experiences and preferences, it was a normal part of my life.

We talk of the shock service members will face if gays are suddenly able to be open about their sexuality (which I doubt will be as severe as critics predict; they overestimate human ability to hide one’s true nature from one’s closest acquaintances. My personal belief is that every gay service member has unit members who know or think they know the truth), but what about the shock currently faced by the millions of men and women who straddle the civilian and military worlds, and who know that there are second-class citizens on one side of that divide?  It is extraordinarily difficult for me to accept that putting on a uniform makes gays suddenly disappear from the world.

Ultimately it is in the best interests of the nation and of the military to allow gays to serve openly in the military, without threat of disgrace or need for disguise.  And I believe that the low response rate to the survey, which I read as indicating a lower level of passion about this issue than otherwise assumed, only reinforces the argument that the repeal of DADT will have a minimal negative impact on general unit cohesion and readiness, and that the majority of the men and women in uniform already understand that, despite their personal beliefs about homosexuality.

This is an exciting time for the future of equality in the armed forces – women and minorities are putting on one, two, three and even four stars; women will soon begin serving on a trial basis on SSBNs; the Navy continues to beat Army in football (no, that’s not equality, that’s just a happy fact); and we may soon take the next big step toward creating a military that mirrors civil society in its equal treatment of all citizens.

Posted on 15 Aug 2010

Photo: af.mil

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6 thoughts on “A Month Later, DADT Survey Participation Lags

  1. Eric says:

    I think the post-DADT transition in the military will be far less dramatic than the political debate that spurred the transition. Individual isolated incidents may happen that pundits and media types may frame as indicative of a trend, but individual isolated incidents happen all the time, below the radar, based on different sources of friction, including simple interpersonal conflict – people being people.The military, at least the Army, has a strong normalizing social culture. Differences are accepted and tolerated (it's always entertaining to hear soldiers debate and see what they turn into off-duty when the uniform comes off), but on the job, there are strict social orders and norms of behavior that apply to everyone. No matter what biases soldiers have as individuals, they are expected to be professional soldiers first. Minorities and women are attracted to the military by that ethic and the fairness of relatively clear professional standards. The same standards will help openly gay soldiers in the post-DADT transition. As my drill sergeant made clear to us on the 1st day of Basic Training, soldiers only come in one color – green. Openly gay soldiers will simply become another shade of green.

  2. Brian Wagner says:

    Eric, very well said, and a welcome addition to my post. It is funny how one of the assumptions of the debate is that soldiers are less mature than the average civilian who has to deal with gay co-workers and friends on a daily basis. The issue of “unit cohesiveness” alone certainly doesn't account for politicians' assumptions that the military will fall apart where civil society has not.

  3. seanwilkes says:

    I agree. It is almost certainly going to end up being a non-issue operationally speaking. There may be some small growing pains here and there, but it will be far less drastic than the more difficult to square-away but still relatively successful integration of women into the services that happened a few decades ago.

  4. Eric says:

    The difference is social more than individual. People join the Army as adults, which means they're products of their upbringing who carry their prejudices and tribalism like normal people. The difference from most other areas of society is that the Army takes highly diverse sets of individuals and forcefully integrates them while also bonding them together with a common identity – American Soldier. An identity whose power comes from a history older than the nation itself, carved deep by the mortal sacrifices of generations of heroes. Powerful enough to offer a fresh slate, an opportunity for a new soldier to sort through his civilian baggage and start over as a soldier among soldiers. Many political scientists search for the elusive cosmopolitan identity that is strong enough to bind a diverse nation. We already have it – people just have to sign up and suck up Basic Training to get it.I believe Scott Stewart had that kind of experience. He joined the Army as a gay American to protest DADT, which he did, and enroute, became a proud infantryman. (Not surprising since he's a Texan.)In my opinion, DADT has been a perversion that has forced soldiers to consider a soldier's non-military identity as somehow trumping his soldier identity. Getting rid of DADT restores the natural order of the military where soldiers can identify with different races, religions, etc, while secure in the knowledge that the soldier identity that bonds them together trumps all the identities that separate them.

  5. Mickey Segal says:

    The commandant of the Marine Corps has an interesting quote on implementing changes in DADT:http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/25/world/asia/25…“I can tell you that an overwhelming majority would like not to be roomed with a person who is openly homosexual.” But because some Marines do not object, he said, perhaps having those Marines share rooms voluntarily with openly gay service members “might be the best way to start, without violating anybody’s sense of moral concern or perception on the part of their mates.”This suggests that the key to getting DADT reform is paying attention to such details.

  6. Brian Wagner says:

    Here is a powerful article in the NYT from an officer recently discharged under DADT. He says a lot of things much better than I could, and not just because he is directly affected by the policy: http://atwar.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/09/13/dont-ask-dont-tell-dont-be-all-you-can-be/

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